Eyes in the Sky

Trucks travels beneath two cameras mounted on a reader board at milepost 13 on Interstate 5, south of Ashland. 3/2/09 Denise Baratta

When storms dump heavy snow on Southern Oregon, Internet traffic jumps on two Web sites with cameras that show mountain conditions.

Delighted skiers and snowboarders flock to the Mount Ashland ski area Web site (www.mtashland.com) while dread-filled motorists jam the Oregon Department of Transportation site (www.tripcheck.com) to check on pass and road conditions.

At any one moment during a ski day, Mount Ashland's full-motion color camera is viewed by 60 to 100 visitors.

"Last season, which was a great year, if it dumped a foot of snow you could certainly expect usage to double that next morning," says Chris Cahill, technical director for Hunter Communications, which has a cooperative arrangement with Mount Ashland to provide webcam service.

"Between 6:30 to 8 a.m., people are deciding whether to go up there or not."

ODOT had a record 5.8 million visits for its statewide webcam system in December 2008, when a series of storms hit the state, says Galen McGill, ODOT's Intelligent Transportation Systems manager. The agency cannot break out viewing figures for individual cameras.

McGill suspects the Siskiyou Summit cameras are heavily viewed based on usage of the TripCheck phone system. "From our 511 system, often one of the most requested segments is the Siskiyou Pass. It's usually the top one or two in the winter," he says.

"Visits" include the number of people who come to the TripCheck site, but that figure doesn't include hits when, for example, a visitor might jump from looking at Siskiyou Summit to check the camera on Highway 140 at Lake of the Woods, then view Sexton Summit. Last year the state system had 24.7 million visits. In 2000, it generated 4.2 million visits. There never has been enough traffic to bring the system down.

"The camera at the (Siskiyou) Summit has been around the longest, probably since 1998. The one at milepost six came after that," says McGill. "The biggest issue we have during storms is losing power to the cameras."

McGill says ODOT gets a lot of e-mail feedback about how people use the road cams.

One e-mail, from a Eugene trucker's wife, reported that during a December storm other truckers were saying Sexton Summit was snow covered. But a check of the webcam revealed it was bare and the trucker made the trip.

Another e-mail came from an appreciative parent who wrote that his 17- and 20-year-old children decided not to drive unless absolutely necessary after checking the site during snowy days.

Mount Ashland's live-action camera replaced a daily picture in November 2007. Hunter Communications had to get a higher capacity server to handle increased viewing.

"The webcam has certainly been the best received and most popular element of the Web site that we have added," says Mount Ashland Marketing Director Rick Saul. "I think it helps people stay in touch with the mountain if they can't see it."

Potential visitors appreciate the fact they can judge conditions for themselves rather than relying on someone's interpretation, says Saul. He checks the camera as he prepares his daily reports, because conditions can change rapidly.

Cahill believes the full-motion feature is unique for a ski area. Most ski areas and other venues offer still pictures that are taken at regular intervals. ODOT, which has 229 cameras statewide, beams still pictures at intervals varying from two to 12 minutes apart.

Project A Web Development's Jim Teece says the Mount Ashland and ODOT webcams are the only ones he's aware of in Southern Oregon that operate regularly. His firm sometimes provides the service for such events as Ashland's Fourth of July parade.

"Other people have installed (webcams) in bars, but they were doing that with the assumption that everyone would go to a site to see who is going to the bar," says Teece. "They go up and they do down. They just don't work out fiscally."

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net.


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